The writing is on the wall for offensive advertising posters

The CRE advertising campaign included questioning the public's reaction to its racist posters
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The Independent Online
IT WAS never going to work. When the Commission for Racial Equality launched a range of poster advertisements depicting black people as rapists and comparing them to orang-utans, the campaign was bound to misfire.

Instead of achieving its aim of shaking up Britain and making us realise how racist we are, the posters have brought stinging criticisms of the CRE itself and the fastest wave of complaints the Advertising Standards Authority can remember. The police are now wondering whether the adverts actually break the law, and if they should bring a prosecution.

Adverts which backfire are nothing new. In fact, firms that rent out poster sites have come up with a sanction against the perpetrators of unnecessarily offensive campaigns - and the CRE is likely to be the first organisation to suffer the consequences.

Dismayed by the run of commercials for jeans, cars and clothes that have sent complainers reaching for their phones, the industry this summer started a vetting system. The CRE and other known offenders may be required to have any future poster campaigns vetted by the ASA before they are allowed on the billboards.

The process could also mark an end to adverts which companies cynically devise to cause a stir with a quick, offensive hit.

"The poster people don't want their posters hijacked by companies which court controversy for controversy's sake," says an ASA spokesman.

Other offenders which might not have passed the vetting stage include the French Connection FCUK adverts and the Lee Jeans poster showing a very sharp, very high stiletto being aimed at a man's bottom.

"Being offensive and backfiring are the same thing in advertising," said Tom Rodwell of advertising agency Court Burkett. "The CRE campaign was both stupid and offensive. When amateurs like this get into the business, it hurts everybody."

The ASA agrees there have been fewer companies which think causing offence will pay off. Benetton has toned down its campaigns, although some others, like French Connection, have seen profits increase - its chairman, David Bernstein, said the FCUK campaign helped annual profits jump 32 per cent to pounds 8.2m this year.

But there are non-offensive campaigns too, which cause problems. "This summer Melinda Messenger was appearing live at the big billboard on the Commercial Road [London]," says Mark Robinson of J Walter Thompson agency. "The problem was she was showering, and was in danger of becoming a major traffic hazard."

Tom Rodwell agrees. "Some ads misfire in an entirely innocent way. There is the famous old example of the Strand cigarettes TV ad, which showed a man in a foggy London street, with sultry music, and the slogan 'you're never alone with a Strand'. The hitch was that nobody bought the cigarettes because they didn't want to be a sad, lonely bastard like the man in the ad."

Ads that Provoked Outcry


In July, the ASA told Diesel Jeans to stop using a poster featuring four young women dressed as nuns from the waist up, wearing jeans and holding rosaries under the headline "Superior Denim". In some posters a picture of the Virgin Mary in jeans was shown, triggering 95 complaints from people who found the images deeply offensive. Whether they would otherwise have been customers for Diesel jeans is not known.


French Connection caused a stir with its FCUK campaign. "It caused problems for parents trying to explain to their children what it was about," said the ASA, which seemed confused by how to react to the campaign. It was deemed offensive, but all right when commas were used - as in f,c,u and k. It also sanctioned "French Connection Me". Profits went up, but the advertisements backfired among those who thought them plain silly.


A poster showing a man's bottom lying vulnerably under a woman's stiletto was launched at the height of girl-power this spring, but apparently made some chaps feel "belittled and humiliated". Eighty-nine people complained, but the ASA didn't ban it. However, alienating men was considered a bad idea. "Women feel they have been victimised for years and take offence readily. Who knows? In 20 years more men may feel that way," a spokesman said.

CLUB 18-30

Launched a range of magazine ads and posters, devised by Saatchi and Saatchi, which the men loved, but the girls didn't - and it was rumoured they were put off going on the legendary raunchy holidays as a result. The slogans may give a clue to the problem: "Beaver Espana". "The Summer of 69", "Discover your erogenous zone", and "Girls. Can we interest you in a package holiday?" Banned by the ASA.